We were an all-male crew, which was a very different experience for me as an Advisor. I’m used to taking co-ed groups on high adventure trips and tours. Girls bring a different perspective to things which makes camp life and high adventure challenges interesting. Still, these are the guys who signed up and paid their money to go, and the goils had their chance, so there you are. My second adult was Errol, an Iraqi war veteran who works with food service at IU; T.C. was our crew leader for the trip, and our other crew members were Jeffrey and T.J. The five of us and our gear filled one mini-van quite comfortably.
VC 119 UK Crew
Errol, Art, T.J., T.C., Jeffrey
One damp thing after another
It was autumn in Britain. Which matters less as far as weather goes than you might think, since Britain is pretty damp in all seasons. We went expecting to get rained on, and we were not disappointed. But as District Commissioner Kelly of the Hadrian District Scouts reminded us, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.” We were also worried about the cold, but while there was a noticeable chill many evenings, by and large we had comfortable temperatures and we were all warm at night, if not always dry.
We were struck by the ages of people out hiking in the fells and highlands. Elderly folk and families with young children met us frequently on a mountain path somewhere, which put us to shame. Hardy people, indeed. Also, most people wore very good rain gear, even for a trip down to the market. These people have adapted to the weather and hardly notice it. I did quite well in my usual backpacking gear, which emphasizes layering more than specialized clothing. I probably looked like a tramp next to the locals in their high-end rain jackets.
The moon was waxing throughout our trip, though it was often “a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.” It was full over Loch Lomond our last night in country.
Don’t be sheepish
For our Crew members, the dominant impression of the island of Great Britain will probably be that it is home to sheep innumerable. We saw more sheep than people, almost. We certainly saw sheep where even the craziest hiker would not think of going. They were on hillsides, in fields enclosed by stone walls, in the road. After a while, it became a byword among us. As we drove down the road, pointing out the sights to each other, increasingly we would just look out the window and say, “sheep.”
The Ubiquitous Ungulate
Sheep on Scafell Pike
We did see a few cows here and there, small and shaggy mostly. Some horses wearing coats in the chilly weather. In the wild, we saw pheasants, crows, mallards, something like a grouse that committed suicide by running in front of our car, an English robin (I think), rabbits, and squirrels. We heard owls and a fox or two.
Cakes and ale
At one camping gear store in Ambleside, the sales clerk asked what we had come over to Britain to do. I replied that we were here to sample British cuisine. He burst out laughing. When he realized I was serious, we got talking food. He himself was a vegetarian, but admitted to a secret longing for black pudding. We avoided black pudding on principle, but it should be noted that the British think this is the best stuff ever.
We cooked for ourselves most evenings. Lunches were generally whatever bread we could find (ciabatta, naan, crusty white loaves), cheese (the boys really fell in love with the mature cheddar, which doesn’t cost over there what it does over here), and apples. I had brought Clif bars and pre-cooked bacon from home, and that plus locally bought eggs hard-boiled ahead of time gave us the ability to get breakfast out of the way quickly each day.
Still, we planned for several meals out in pubs and restaurants so that the Venturers could sample the local food. That brought up a sticky situation, viz., the consumption of alcohol. The UK has different laws and a different culture from the US. Youths the age of our Venturers can drink legally (depending upon location and product) in Britain. Beer (lager and ale) and wine (if only of the “ordinary fizzy plonk” variety) are offered to you everywhere. Scout leaders you may be sharing a camp with will invite you over for a beer after the day’s program is done. I’ve even seen older Scouts drinking beer around a campfire. On Holy Island, the shops put out little tiny samples of the famous local mead, as well as other varietal wines and liqueurs, for people to taste.
Now, BSA has strict rules about alcohol and The UMC ain’t far behind. We don’t drink on Scout trips or youth group trips; that said, it’s hard to avoid being offered stuff to drink in Britain. Our solution was to allow the boys to sample things as part of our eating out. The first time we stopped for a pub lunch, they all ordered pints of the local ales. Their reaction was unanimous: yuck. Nobody got beyond a few sips. Why do people drink this stuff? they asked. More to the point, Why do all the college kids make a big deal out of drinking beer? Which brought us to the Teachable Moment. We had a very profound – and unforced – talk about the falsity of appearing sophisticated by doing stuff others haven’t yet and all that. Errol and I told them that if you don’t like something, or don’t feel comfortable being invited to do it, then don’t do it. After that, they switched back to soft drinks, although they continued to sample a bit here and there as opportunity presented itself. Jeffrey decided that the cider was really good, while T.J. achieved his long-held ambition of sampling mead and discovered that all the hype was just that (yuck again).
Red Lion pub
Speaking of soft drinks, there were two that we tried more than once. Vimto was billed as an “energy” soft drink. Sort of a red pop, with about as much caffeine as Jolt. In Stirling, we were proudly referred to something called Irn Bru, of which the Scots are very fond; in fact, it outsells Coke among soft drinks in Scotland. It’s been brewed in Scotland for over a hundred years. We had our doubts, but we tried it. Honest to goodness, it tastes like an orange crème soda: a melted Dreamsickle. So that went on the happy discovery side of the ledger.
I’ll mention the actual dishes we sampled in the play-by-play, but I can’t leave the subject of food without mentioning the British craze for weird-flavored potato chips. We enjoyed the usual salt and vinegar, but then there were also balsamic vinegar, sweet Thai chile, prawn cocktail, smoked ham and pickle, grilled steak, cheddar and onion, even haggis and black pepper – and those were only the ones that we dared to try.
The final verdict on British cookery is, if you like meat and potatoes, this is the place for you. The boys all gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the local food. One time, sitting in a restaurant, we were discussing how different this trip was from previous high adventure trips. I remarked, well, there are physical adventures, intellectual adventures, culinary adventures . . . T.C. said that’s what we’re on: a culinary adventure.
Talking the talk
We encountered several distinct accents, some of which were easier to understand than others. Glaswegian (the dialect of the people of Glasgow) is the most impenetrable accent I’ve ever encountered. Even looking straight at the face of a local speaker and giving every bit of my attention, I had a hard time deciphering what was being said to me. Still, most people used some variety or other of RP (“Received pronunciation,” the Queen’s English), even if the cadence and such varied. The Scots customs officer who asked where we were headed as we entered the country corrected my pronunciation of Cumbria (I said KOOM-bree-a, she said KUM-bree-a), which disgusted Mr. Arnott at Ennerdale, who was born in Scotland and lives in Cumbria. He endorsed my pronunciation.
The tour guide at Stirling Castle spoke in a delightful Scots accent. I had no difficulty understanding him. I did notice that he used a couple of turns of phrase habitually. First was the use of “himself” at the end of a phrase or sentence. “This is the castle building built by James IV, himself” does not mean that he used his own hands, but that he personally ordered it. It can also be used to draw attention to somebody or something: “Mary Queen of Scots lived here between X and Y, herself.” It’s kind of a tic, used in reflexive fashion. Another is “at that time.” This is even used in a redundant fashion after the time reference has already been given: “It was in October, 1606, that the X was made, at that time.” We would use “at that time” in a comparative fashion (the biggest barn in Indiana, at that time – as compared to “nowadays”); in Scotland, it is used absolutely (and so it came to happen, at that time).
Words in common use both here and there may have meanings you are not used to, or things which are polite in one culture are disfavored in the other. For instance:
Chips. In the UK, chips means fried potatoes. Most are like thick French fries. A chip shop is a place selling fried food. What we call potato chips are called crisps across the pond.
Pants. When Allan Kelly saw our crew t-shirts, he got the joke, but it took him a moment. We had a Scots Highlander in a kilt, a Northumbrian monk in a habit, and a Roman soldier in a tunic, with the punch line, “Pants are over-rated.” Well, in the US pants is immediately understood to mean “trousers.” In the UK, pants means “underwear.” The joke’ll work either way, but if I’d thought about it, I might have re-phrased the line before we printed the shirts.
Toilet. This is the common British word for the facility. Everyone uses the word, and it appears on signs everwhere. In America, we usually say “restroom” for the place. Toilet we reserve for the actual appliance, and we generally consider saying “toilet” for “restroom” to be a wee bit vulgar, on the level of “latrine” (outside of military usage).
Champion. Used adjectivally for “great, outstanding.”
Recovery Agent. The man operating a tow truck.
Sign of the Black Hog
Former brushmaker’s, Kendal